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Criminal Law

Should More Crimes Be Made Federal Offenses?

Enforcement of criminal laws in the United States has traditionally been a matter handled by the states. The federal government, conversely, has typically limited itself to policing only crimes against the federal government and interstate crime. This is just one expression of the U.S. system of FEDERALISM, the notion that the federal government exists in tandem with the states and does not, without necessity, deprive states of their powers. The TENTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution is an example of federalism at work. That amendment states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Near the end of the twentieth century, however, Congress passed a host of federal laws that directly overlap with existing state criminal laws. Such laws include the Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992, the Child Support Recovery Act of 1992, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992, and new criminal laws on ARSON, narcotics and dangerous drugs, guns, MONEY LAUNDERING and reporting, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, environmental transgressions, career criminals, and repeat offenders. As a result, in 1998, the number of criminal prosecutions in federal courts increased by 15 percent. The increase was nearly three times the increase in federal criminal prosecutions in 1997.

In a Report of the Federal Judiciary issued at the end of 1998, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST criticized the congressional movement toward federalizing the criminal justice system. "Federal courts were not created to adjudicate local crimes," Rehnquist instructed, "no matter how sensational or heinous the crimes may be." Rehnquist noted the tremendous toll that federalization of crime was exacting on the federal judiciary, and he decried the damage it was doing to the concept of federalism: "The trend to federalize crimes that traditionally have been handled in state courts not only is taxing the judiciary's resources and affecting its budget needs, but it also threatens to change entirely the nature of our federal system." According to Rehnquist, the problem was political in nature; senators and representatives in Congress were using the act of lawmaking to win or keep their seats: "The pressure in Congress to appear responsive to every highly publicized societal ill or sensational crime needs to be balanced with an inquiry into whether states are doing an adequate job in this particular area and, ultimately, whether we want most of our legal relationships decided at the national rather than local level."

In his 1998 report, Rehnquist cited a report on federal courts issued by the 1995 JUDICIAL CONFERENCE OF THE UNITED STATES. The Judicial Conference recommended that federal courts be used for only five types of cases: 1) offenses against the government or its inherent interests; 2) criminal activity with substantial multi-state or international aspects; 3) criminal activity involving complex commercial or institutional enterprises most effectively prosecuted under federal resources or expertise; 4) serious high level or widespread state or local government corruption; and 5) criminal cases raising highly sensitive local issues. "Although Congress need not follow the recommendations of the Judicial Conference," Rehnquist wrote, "this Long-Range Plan is based not simply on the preference of federal judges, but on the traditional principle of federalism that has guided the country throughout its existence."

Concern over the federalization trend spread during the late 1990s. The Criminal Justice Section of the AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION (ABA) organized a task force—the Task Force on the Federalization of Criminal Law—to look into the matter. In 1998, the task force issued a report in which it criticized the trend. Victor S. (Torry) Johnson, a representative of the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) on the task force, declared in Prosecutor, "By trying to fight street crime through federal legislation, Congress misleads the public into believing that a national response will be effective and that the problem will be solved with federal intervention." Congress then fails to provide enough federal funding to prosecute all the new laws, creating a situation in which the efforts of local law enforcement "are undermined by the unrealistic expectations created by Congress' well-publicized enactments."

In his 1999 article for Corrections Today, James A. Gondles Jr., executive director of the American Correctional Association, lamented the introduction of low-level, local criminals into the federal system. According to Gondles, mixing such prisoners with big-time federal criminals blurs the jurisdictional line and makes it "more difficult for those at the state and local levels to do their jobs."

Not everyone is troubled by the federalization of criminal law enforcement. Proponents of federal criminal laws argue that they are necessary in an increasingly mobile society. Crime tends to span more than one state and even local crime can have effects which cross state boundaries. In his article for the Hastings Law Journal, Rory K. Little, a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, defended the increase in federal crimes as a protection against the inability of states to catch and prosecute all criminals. If the quality of justice is better in the federal courts, Little opines, "then problems of crime cannot be ignored federally while state criminal justice systems slowly sink and justice fails."

A U.S. Supreme Court decision in March 1999 constituted an approval of increased federal authority over crime. In United States v. Rodriguez-Moreno, 526 U.S. 275, 119 S.Ct. 1239, 143 L.Ed.2d 388 (1999), Jacinto Rodriguez-Moreno KIDNAPPED a drug associate and took him from Texas to New Jersey, then to New York, and finally to Maryland. Rodriguez-Moreno was charged with, among other crimes, kidnapping and using and carrying a firearm in relation to a kidnapping, an act that violated 18 U.S.C.A. § 924(c)(1). Section 924(c)(1) makes it a crime to use or carry a firearm during, and in relation to, any crime of violence. Rodriguez-Moreno was tried in New Jersey on the charges, even though he did not have a gun in New Jersey.

Rodriguez-Moreno, who did not want to be tried in New Jersey, argued that the statute did not allow the federal government to prosecute him for the § 924 crime in New Jersey because he did not commit the crime in that state. The Court rejected the argument, holding that because the crime of violence (kidnapping) continued through several states, prosecution was proper in any district where the crime of violence was committed, even if the firearm was used or carried in only one state. The decision made it easier for federal prosecutors to pick and choose the venues for their cases.


"Federalization of Crimes: Chief Justice Rehnquist on Federalization of Crimes." 1999. Prosecutor (March/April).

"Federalization of Crimes: NDAA's Representative Reports on ABA's Federalization Task Force." 1999. Prosecutor (March/April).

Gondles, James A. 1999. "The Federalization of Criminal Justice." Corrections Today (April).

Little, Rory K. 1995. "Myths and Principles of Federalization." Hastings Law Journal (April).

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